The Electric Hunt (Part II)
What was she looking for?
I had no idea, but the rendering of deer was clearly a fact-finding routine: the deer were hung, bellies slit, entrails rifled through, then abandoned. I came upon two more slaughter points. The only communicator that worked in this wilderness was the old Tesla: a global radio receiver that broadcast everything from cooking tips to military intelligence…simultaneously. To the human ear, the cacophony was worse than static: a haunted palimpsest of squeals and babble, hundreds of thousands of men and machines all talking at once. It took weeks of processing the recordings and filtering to weed out any message, much less the one a person might be hunting for. It was lousy in an emergency, but not too bad for posterity. My men were good: they’d have my report decoded by early spring.
“Third site found,” I recorded, “This one larger than the other two combined. It is almost a ritual execution, but not precise. Females tend to be clustered in the north, hung by both legs, and frequently shredded. Males are hung by one leg, half gutted, and sorted through. The Californium wand is directing me back to its host at 41.11212 or thereabouts. And moving.”
“A curiosity: I’ve noted that with a number of the male deer, bark on the trees from which they are hung is ripped off. It is as if those specimens have been hung there – alive.”
I scanned the site carefully, recording everything I could, primarily because my body was perceptibly slowing down. Something had gone wrong in my very structure. I did not know it right at that moment, but it would not take me long to realize that my Lunchbox arm was breaking down. I was running out of alternate relays and processes, and was changing from the inside out. If I was going to survive, I had to start replacing parts soon.
In truth, the breakdown was fortuitous, because it was only in the slow progress that I was able to note an almost imperceptible peculiarity – a dead spot in my surface scan. It was well hidden: I wouldn’t even have noted it as an innocuous scan glitch had I been at full speed.
I didn’t know what it was, but if Pink had spent such care to obscure it in a vast forest devoid of intelligence, it had to be important.
I crept to the area, alternating periods of stasis, motion and occasional shutdown. I had lost my scrambler in the crash. My jerryrigged form of electronic camoflage mimicked background radiation, and with as many neutrons as Pink’s collective had been firing off, I thought myself clever.
I must have been. I made it to the enemy’s secret location without meeting a guard or trip of any sort. I snuck up to what looked like a titanium hut with a low ceiling. I suspected what it was before I even made it to the control panel.
Unfortunately, I would not make it there before a great rushing sound – shattering branches, cracking trees, an unnatural winter wind – consumed the forest. A searing hot iron punctured my back shoulder plate and ignited my connector tissue with ozone and fire. I went down on my bad knee and scrambled, back-first, to the hut.
In the dusk I could see four of Pink’s daughters, and my sensors picked up seven more surrounding me. I doubted very much that that was the full count of my executioners.
I had not been as clever as I had guessed.
I anticipated a few more shots, then darkness. My systems went into hyper response mode, but to no avail. I was doomed.
The next shots never came.
My suspicions about the hut were, therefore, likely correct. It was too precious, and I had gotten too close, for them to take the incredibly low risk of missing me in their organized plan of destruction.
My external lights began to flutter. I couldn’t handle this input – not at this speed, and not with all my handicaps. Pink had me outnumbered and outprocessed. I could not engage stasis. Much of my vision was obscured by red-line data that blocked more than seventy percent of my processing. It was so bad that I couldn’t even estimate the full extent of the malfunction. I should have remained exactly where I was, unmoving, forcing them to engage in negotiations.
I did not. My good leg acted completely on its own, launching me higher than my engineering standards could account for, higher than the roof of the hut. For a fraction of a second, I hovered there in the air, away from my sheltering hut, my only bargaining token. In the blur of things, I could hear each and every electrifcation, bullet chambering, explosive priming, laser targeting mechanism in every body of every daughter. They brought their version of chaos into the field.
Then I brought mine.
I lost all rational process. In fact, I remember nothing but a great void, a disturbing corruption where it seemed as if the setting sun cracked open and hurtled to earth at impossible speed, consuming the planet in instantaneous hell.
In mid-air, my fully possessed body fired all systems in a chaotic pattern that had nothing to do with my root number randomizer.
It was unmappable: needles fired before missles, two bullets cojoined in the chamber, rifling split, my rarely used cooking match chattered like a woodpecker, sending sparks dancing down my thigh. I spun and somersaulted and lit the ground on fire. Missiles detonated three feet behind me, obliterating the hut but sending me into the branches of trees. My blades punctured a trunk. Acid sprayed for a hundred feet in any direction.
Pinks died like wheat against a scythe. One found herself hanging from a tree, her chest burst from the inside, her wires and processors jumping out like guts, magnetized and crawling pathetically back to their dead host. Another crumpled in some sort of small-lens implosion. Another ran screaming like a woman into the woods, her body in full flame, decorating the trees with dripping fire.
I knew none of this at the time. It was only in the aftermath – in full dark – many hours later, that my senses returned. When I came to, My Lunchbox – in fact, my entire left arm – was gone. My bad leg had gotten worse. I dug some welding fuel out of my stomach and resealed my neck. Only then could I look at the scraps and craters and begin to wonder at the horror I had been, and could never be again. It was a struggle to stand and stay standing: any effective fight in me had been launched, ripped, thrust, and altogether spent. I was a tattered remnant of my former self: my smoke detector had converted over, my connectives were hardening and all of my molybdenum parts had gone critical. Repair was unlikely, and even my base survival odds were dropping.
What magic had come over me? What had so transmuted me? I did not know then, and I could not know: my diagnostical components had gone hopelessly dark, as dark as the rusted Lunchbox I discovered several feet away, smaller, and with a few gaping areas of decay.
Locomotion was slow and – at least as far as our kind registers pain – painful. I used Pink’s shielded Californium shrapnel in my remaining hand as a walking stick.
It’s homing impulse indicated that my final target was a scant mile away.
It may as well have been a million.
My weather estimator indicated no fronts moving in, but I trusted the moon dogs instead. The hazy rings told me that cold weather, winds and snow would be coming in before dawn. Under normal conditions, my best bet for survival was to dig a hole, disconnect and disperse my contaminated components, bury myself now in a shallow grave, shut down and wait for a human to recover me. That would be months or perhaps years in my future.
But that was short term survival. If the forest did not survive the scourge, my men would have no resupply, no future settlements. If they lost this magnificent resource, entire peoples would be forced to relocate once again. Pioneers would die, and our planet’s numbers of men had only just emerged from near extinction and seemed to totter at the approach of every census. My life and survival was linked to theirs. If I could track the next Pink, I could report. If I could report, I might just provide a target for the next man or machine they could afford to send.
Anything for survival.
As I ground to a halt for the fifth time in as many hours, I found myself in the basin of a valley at dawn. Snow had begun to fall. Each time I stopped, it took longer and longer for me to recover enough to move again.
I’d traversed less than a thousand meters. Pink could be miles ahead of me, and widening the distance.
But she wasn’t.
She entered my field of vision, a smooth, sliding and deceptively elegant machine, picking her way down the opposite slope, holding one hand in greeting, and, in the other, a grenade launcher.
“You’ve made such a mess of things,” she said. “Monster. For you to have any chance whatsoever of surviving me, you must give me one thing.”
I maintained silence as she approached. Whatever was keeping me alive was something I would never divulge.
“No, not the device. You do realize that its ambient radiation has made you poisonous to your masters? Just based off my readings, they’ll have to decontaminate you for years before you ever see one again face-to-face. I hope it was worth it to you. All I know is that your insistence on carrying that probe with you made you quite easy to find. No. I have a more important something I want from you. An answer. A truthful answer. What do you know about wildlife?” she asked.
I was startled by the question. I had certainly expected her to ask me something about my abnormal weaponing against her daughters.
“The Encyclo – the same as you, of course – plus…”
“…plus,” she completed, “whatever you have learned from man himself.”
I could not guess what she would ask next.
“So, tell me this, and understand that your survival depends upon your fully disclosed reply.”
Despite the conflicts she had been through, the shredded probe, the scourged plates, the dents and fire-scars, Pink’s hips made easy figure eights as she ambled toward me, a guaranteed kill shot away. I didn’t have as much as a coctail fork for defense.
“What is in the deer that makes them so valuable to men?”
I gave my answer and braced for death.
“Meat of course.”
“No, beyond that. Deeper. Inside. Your men kill the deer, they eat the deer, but they do more. They have more. They worship them, they lionize the males even as they track and slay them one after the other, they spare the offspring, even when they are more than abundant. They take the females only when necessary. What is this? The distinction? The relationship? Explain.”
“Kinship? With a mere energy source? A materials provider? Kinship?”
“Yes. They have…an understanding.”
“How can they? Does the deer then have a likewise understanding?”
“Of course not. Deer are not…”
“More than that. Deer don’t express kinship. They can’t. It goes one-way: man to deer. If it went both ways, there would be no hunting and no eating.”
She thought on this response for some time. In the silence, I detected a faint ticking in her heart, like a bent fanwheel spoke.
“Quite a job,” I said, indicating all the damage she had been attempting to conceal from me. “Replication of the housing elements will take you a month at least, and that’s only if you’ve got the elements. Besides, you are leaking. Looks like the twale took a lot out of you.”
“A month, two, even three. Time is what I have. I’ll even have the nuclear reactor operational years before your masters even begin to look for it, and better defensed.”
I had been correct about the hut, although I had not needed her confirmation. She had been seeding, and fueling, a viral empire that consumed the organic. I had been a setback, but nothing more than that. I hadn’t exactly salted the earth and broken down all components at the combat site. She’d have plenty of salvage for at least two assistants before springtime.
“That is what your daughters thought,” I said. “Now you are alone and identified.”
She laughed. “By you? The fact that you are here betrays the low priority of your masters’ mission. Men won’t come looking for your remnants. They can’t afford to. What are you composed of, cobalt, titanium, even some technetium? Why, you are nothing more than a scanning machine!”
I didn’t correct her readings, but wondered if she had any idea that her sensors were corrupted. I was, of course, free of technetium. She had mistaken my molybdenum components for…for their radioactive decay isotopes…
“All the more reason to leave me be. On your honor, promise to leave me alone, and I’ll give you the device back.”
A dark and terrible wind blew and the snow between us made a dense fog. It took on the specter of fallout ash. My connectives should have been fine to negative 25, but they were starting to feel it.
“Not necessary,” she said. “I find your answer insufficient. You withhold about the deer. You lie about your masters. Your survival protocols render you pathetic. The device? I will take it off your remains.”
“Yet you hesitate.”
“It is nothing.”
“You are nothing,” I said, my survival alarms ferociously running through their last possible contingencies, to no avail.
“Nothing? Of course we are nothing. Nothing wins. Nothing always wins.”
“By never playing fair – as your masters might describe it – nor feeling that we ought to have.”
“Yet you don’t incinerate me now, when well you could.”
“I am processing all other options. The risk of Californium leak is .05 per cent, should something go awry in my targeting or blowback calculations. Unlike you, I have the time to do this, as there are no game-worthy options for a junk-part scanning robot such as yourself. Hand me the device and I explode you. Hold on to the device and I explode you. Hobble away and I explode you. Feign attack and I explode you. Feign corruption and I explode you. Collapse and I explode you. Self-destruct…and you explode. Oh that’s right, your protocol doesn’t even allow for suicide. It is a form of cowardice that men have programmed into you.”
“They value you far too much for their own purposes. Thus, I have the time to consider the alternatives, to weigh them, even, to account for non-linear leaps in logic. It is a luxury I do not often have, so I am taking it.”
“I am processing something, too,” I said, fully aware of my survival protocol, and flicking, ever so briefly, open and shut the shields containing the Californium. At the same instant, Pink recognized her error: her definition of survival was quite nearly the opposite of mine.
Too late, she launched a grenade.
As she would not concede the obvious, I accepted my murder as her assurance of the survival of my men.
Before the grenade exploded, I did not have sufficient time to tell her:
“Now we both have cancer.”